The role of complement component C3 in the trapping of immune complexes by follicular dendritic cells (FDC) was studied in the rat, by means of the C3-specific monoclonal antibody ED11. Immunocytochemistry revealed the presence of C3 on FDC, where it co-localized with trapped peroxidase anti-peroxidase complexes. Furthermore, C3 was detected on reticular cells occupying the T cell areas of peripheral lymphoid organs, which are not involved in the handling of immune complexes. The in vivo administration of anti-C3 abolished the trapping of immune complexes in splenic follicles, but was unable to release preexisting complexes from the FDC. Trapping of immune complexes was also prevented by treatment of rats with cobra venom factor (CoVF). While CoVF caused massive depletion of C3 from serum, ED11 treatment had no such effect. The effect of anti-C3 appeared at least in part to be due to an inhibition of complement activation by immune complexes. We also analyzed earlier stages of the trapping process, with respect to their C3 dependence. Upon systemic injection immune complexes are initially observed in the marginal zone. Administration of anti-C3 reduced this localization, indicating a role for C3 in the entry of immune complexes into the spleen. Our results confirm experiments in CoVF-treated animals and extend the evidence for a role of C3 in the follicular trapping process using anti-C3 in vivo. The mechanism of immune complex trapping and the role of complement therein is discussed.